The Looming Strike

Brinksmanship is at the heart of the collective bargaining dance, but as the LIRR strike loomed next week, the threat of a walkout weighed heavily on people in Queens trying to plan their lives.

The acrimony between the LIRR’s unions and the MTA board was all too apparent. Talks broke down Monday after only 45 minutes. The union chairman sent out a letter saying the workers planned to strike July 20 and would begin winding down service later in the week. The frustrated MTA chairman said the two sides were divided “not by a gap but a gulf.”

There are arguments to be made on behalf of both labor and management in this battle, and the stakes are high for the 300,000 riders who travel on the nation’s largest commuter railroad.

New York City’s economy could take a hit if workers from Long Island can’t make it to their jobs in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, while summer playgrounds on Fire Island and in the Hamptons could be at risk if tourists without wheels can’t reach their beaches.

Queens’ economic beat could be disrupted by thousands of cars pouring into park-and-ride sites near major subway stations in the borough, while shuttle buses would add to the chaos.

Behind all these doomsday scenarios is the divergent interests dividing labor from management in an era when unions have far less clout than they did 30 years ago.

The LIRR union members worked without a contract for more than two years and expect to be rewarded for their perseverance. They are demanding a 17 percent wage increase over six years, while the MTA has offered the same hike over a seven-year period to secure the savings needed for keeping fare increases in check.

Perhaps most troubling for labor is the MTA’s insistence that new employees get a lesser benefit package than current employees, a move that could weaken the unions.

A strike is not an option in this case. The leaders of both sides must go back to the table, put their wounded egos on hold and be prepared to give enough to get a new contract for the 5,400 workers whose job is to make the trains run on time.

Forgotten in the rhetoric is the LIRR rider, who is entitled to more than an alternative plan to get to work next week.

A reluctant Gov. Cuomo, up for re-election this year, needs to join the fray and broker a settlement. He played a major role in the city transit workers’ recent contract. As for our mayor, he will be in Italy on vacation as his young administration could face its biggest test yet.